Five Days in Hell!
Paradise Motor Homes’ new Free Time on the automotive torture track…
by Richard Robertson
Most motorhomers err on the side of caution when heading down any road not swathed in bitumen – and who can blame them? Manufacturers claim all kinds of construction strength and durability, but who wants to test them and risk an investment that might have pushed well into six figures? So when Paradise Motor Homes’ Colin Maclean told me he was taking his all-new Free Time to the Australian Automotive Research Centre (AARC) proving grounds for five days of torture testing I was surprised – and couldn’t get there quickly enough.
The AARC is a secretive place well off the beaten track (sorry rental car people) that’s hidden behind tall fences in the bush on the outskirts of Anglesea, Victoria. Mum’s the word because it’s where car companies put new models through their paces, safe from prying eyes. Indeed, they have a “no cameras” policy that made my heart sink upon arrival, although Colin had negotiated special dispensation on pain of death (and forfeiture of my first born). The complex sprawls over hundreds of acres, I’d estimate, and encompasses test tracks for every road surface – from high-speed freeways to Belgium cobblestones – as well as kilometres of rough dirt roads.
The AL-KO Connection
The Free Time is Paradise’s first model on the Fiat Ducato and uses an after-market AL-KO chassis instead of Fiat’s standard offering. AL-KO is a long-established German company specialising in vehicle chassis and suspension for motorhomes, caravans and trailers. It’s had a substantial Australian presence since 1988 and manufactures for the local market from a recently expanded factory in Dandenong, in Melbourne’s south east.
The AL-KO chassis differs significantly from Fiat’s factory unit, starting with being literally bolted to the cab. It has a much lower floor height, is lighter and yet is claimed to be stronger. Impressively, AL-KO manufactures its chassis (in Australia) to the motorhome manufacture’s individual requirements. This allows cross members to be perfectly positioned to allow for water tanks, for example, but there is another big advantage. AL-KO’s trademark torsion bar suspension is housed in axle tubes that are themselves structural cross-members of the chassis.This means that rather than having 250-plus kg of traditional rear axle and suspension hanging as a dead weight from the chassis and stressing it, the lighter AL-KO solution is adding substantial structural rigidity.
Watch for an article on AL-KO in an upcoming issue as iMotorhome has been invited for a factory tour.
With so much riding on the new Free Time, both Paradise and AL-KO were keen to see how it would likely perform in the long run. So under the technical leadership of AL-KO’s production engineer - motorhomes, Craig Greenaway (and Colin’s watchful eyes), an intensive five day program was devised to test the chassis and body – and the Fiat – for durability and structural integrity.
It needs to be noted this was an endurance, not destruction, test: the objective being to uncover any structural deficiencies in the chassis and motorhome body.
Each of the five days were divided into two, four-hour sets during which the Free Time did a pre-determined number of runs round three test tracks: the Second Class Surface (dirt roads), Chassis Twist and Rough Circuit (cobblestones/concrete corrugations). Following each set an inspection session checked the vehicle, chassis and body for cracking or other wear indications and all drive sessions were carefully logged and any problems documented. The Free Time was loaded with full fuel, fresh and grey water tanks, and approximately 600 kg of sandbags on the floor in the lounge behind the cab, to bring it to its legal maximum of 4490 kg gross weight when the driver and a passenger were added.
The test was designed to cover approximately 1000 km over the 5 days and AL-KO estimated it was equivalent to something like 100,000 km of normal use. To be honest, having ridden shotgun on one lap of the 9.6 km Second Class Surface track at speed (70-80 km/h) and one each of the Chassis Twist and Rough Circuit, I doubt any owner would subject their motorhome to that much abuse in its lifetime.
My visit coincided with the second set on the Wednesday, so just over half way. The new Free Time was dirty and disheveled when I climbed into the passenger seat along side AL-KO’s product development engineer Simon Cox for my ‘hot laps.’ One lap of each was enough to impart a sense of the relentless punishment the vehicle must have endured in the week – and even by the time of my ride there were some notable casualties.
Early on the Fridge lost its doors, the oven’s glass lid had shattered/come adrift and the microwave had to be removed due to “travel sickness.” Indeed, on completion of my two laps of the cobblestones and abominable concrete corrugations the fridge’s compressor lines cracked and the nauseating smell of refrigerant saw us quickly evacuate the cab. The good news was that the Fiat Ducato, Paradise’s body and cabinetry, and AL-KO’s chassis were all doing nicely.
“We build on a 75 mm thick floor that the walls interlock into,” said Colin. “It provides a tremendous amount of structural strength and rigidity. If you check out the inside, the only cracking we’ve found is a hairline crack in the sealer where the cabinet just inside the door (that holds the TV and microwave) joins the wall.” So I did and it was there; all 30 cm (12 in) or so of it down near floor level – literally just a flesh wound.
Although the interior was lightly coated in dust from an open driver’s window and venting due to LPG regulations, there was no sign of dust build-up around the windows or roof hatches. Cupboards opened and closed properly and even the little washing machine in the aft corner of the bathroom – a location sure to be experiencing significant stress – was sitting securely in place.
The Free Time finished its five day torture test pretty much the way it started, sans a few appliances and in need of a thoroughly good clean. That aside, the chassis and body work passed their five days in Hell with flying colours
“At the end of the five days we conducted a thorough check for cracking over the vehicle and chassis and found none. The whole unit came though incredibly well,” said Craig from AL-KO.
It was good to see the Fiat Ducato passed these trials without incident, too. This test, along with my experiences with a Mercedes Benz Sprinter across Central Australia last year has given me new-found respect for the durability of European vehicles operating in Australian conditions – especially the electronics.
You might think this was a publicity stunt, but I believe otherwise. It was the first time to my knowledge a motorhome manufacturer has gone to such lengths specifically to test for durability. Congratulation to the Paradise Motor Homes team for putting together such a well built vehicle and to AL-KO, for tailoring an Australian solution from a European designed chassis. Oh, and to Fiat, of course! I’m guessing a few appliance companies will now be heading back to the drawing board to see why their products failed so spectacularly. Who knew life in the kitchen could be so demanding?